Here's Why You Should Think Twice Before Drinking Coffee

The following is an excerpt from Coffee Nerd: How to Have Your Coffee and Drink It Too, in which author Ruth Brown explores the beverage's cultural history.

Know Your Coffee History

Imagine trying to learn about punk rock from a fourteen-year-old at the Salt Lake City leg of the Warped Tour. Sure, they can probably give you a pretty thorough rundown of every band currently gracing the front of a Hot Topic T-shirt, but the information will be lacking some fairly important history and context. You need to know about the bands that came before punk.

In fact, to really understand the current goings-on in the coffee world, it’s important to understand what they aren’t as much as what they are. Just as punk rock was in part a reaction to the polished commercial rock of the 1970s, today’s coffee trends are in many ways a reaction to the polished commercial café franchises of the 1990s.

On a more serious note: the coffee trade has a pretty horrible history. It has fueled -- and to some extent continues to fuel -- slavery, exploitation, poverty, and environmental destruction.

When you buy coffee, you become a part of this system.

You don’t have to care (I mean, you should, you jerk, but you don’t have to), but you should at least know what you’re not caring about.

Out of Africa

So how about those ancient Ethiopians? The coffee plant is native to the area, so they had probably been eating and cooking its fruits, seeds, and leaves up in various forms since whichever ancient inhabitant was lucky enough to experience the world’s first caffeine buzz and say, “Hey guys, you’ve got to try this. I think it’ll really catch on!”

At some point, another canny citizen must have had the inspired idea to roast the bean-shaped seeds inside the fruit, grind them, and boil them with water -- and lo, the coffee drink (kinda) as we (sorta) know it today was born.

Out of Africa (Literally This Time)

The next group to catch the coffee craze were the Arabs, which is no great surprise when you consider that Yemen is just a short trip over the sea from the Horn of Africa. More coffee plants were eventually planted there, and by the sixteenth century, the beans had spread throughout much of the Muslim world. At some point, these guys invented the “coffee house,” although blueberry scones and poetry slam nights would not appear until many centuries later.

The Turks took a particular liking to the drink, and after the Ottoman Empire took over Yemen in the 1500s, they were also able to wrest control of the region’s coffee plantations. They were more than happy to sell coffee beans to other countries, but wanted to keep a monopoly on the actual plants and seeds -- a plan that worked until the early seventeenth century, when a wily Dutch merchant managed to smuggle a coffee plant out.

The Dutch subsequently started coffee plantations in their colonies in what are now Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the southwestern coast of India.

Go West

Throughout the seventeenth century, European traders started to buy these magical beans -- originally because they wanted a cut of the increasingly lucrative coffee market in Asia and the Middle East, but eventually bringing both the drink of coffee and the concept of the coffee house to the continent’s major cities.

As Europeans developed a taste for this new drink (or, let’s be honest, more likely its stimulating effects, because the quality of both the product and its preparation were pretty crappy at the time), some started moving away from the strong, black Turkish style. Instead, they prepared the brew to better suit their palates by filtering out the sediment and adding in milk.

Most famously, one of Vienna’s first coffee houses, the Blue Bottle, started filtering out the gritty sediment and topping up coffee with milk as early as the 1680s. This smoother-tasting concoction is said to have helped win more people over to the new beverage. (The Austrians would then go on to popularize the idea of topping coffee with whipped cream, and we all know how that turned out...)

British colonists also brought the drink with them to American colonies in the seventeenth century, but we’ll return there later, because more interesting things were happening elsewhere on the continent.

Coffee Comes to the Americas

Buying up green beans in Asia and reselling them back home became a nice money-spinner for European traders, but naturally, some countries wanted to own the whole supply chain. So in the early eighteenth century, the French and British started creating coffee plantations in their colonies -- mostly in the Caribbean. In order to man these operations, they did what they had already done with sugar plantations there.

The Portuguese in Brazil also wanted in on this new cash cow, so they pinched some coffee plant seeds from neighboring French Guiana in 1720s (see the “Studs of Coffee History” sidebar for all the sexy details) and started growing their own. Brazil would go on to become the largest coffee-producing country in the world -- also on the back of slaves -- and the plants eventually made their way to other South and Central American countries.

But it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that these guys became the big names in coffee production. Toward the end of the 1700s, what is now Haiti (then the French colony of Saint-Domingue) had become the biggest exporter of coffee in the world. But the slaves working those and other plantations there were living and laboring under such horrendous conditions (horrendous even by eighteenth-century slave standards horrendous), they revolted, destroying many of the plantations -- not to mention their owners.

This left Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) -- under the control of the British -- as the new powerhouse. But in the mid-to-late 1800s, a disease called coffee leaf rust laid waste to those plantations, alongside those in India and Indonesia. (The Brits replaced most of their plantations with tea, which is part of the reason they are now a nation of tea drinkers, despite the early popularity of coffee there).

The Latin American countries, now free from their colonial overlords, were there to pick up the slack. (Not that this was necessarily a great blessing for all concerned -- in many instances, native peoples were stripped of land, natural environments were destroyed, and plenty of workers were exploited or worse in pursuit of feeding the world’s growing appetite for coffee).

Meanwhile, in Europe...

Back in the cultural hubs of eighteenth-century Europe, people were really digging on this new drink. Coffee houses, cafés, kaffeehäuser, and whatever they were called in Amsterdam were multiplying like wet Gremlins. And they weren’t just places to drink coffee -- they were places to share ideas, see plays, do business, and have a bite to eat. Many of the earlier coffee houses had played up the exotic origins of the drink -- à la the giant horse sculptures outside of every P.F. Chang’s. In London, some coffee houses displayed stuffed and even live animals like rhinos and elephants. In Paris, the drink became part of a broader craze for all things Turkish in the latter part of the seventeenth century, during which time stylish Parisians were all wearing turbans and robes. But eventually countries developed their own styles and coffee cultures that better reflected local sensibilities:

Voltaire and Napoleon played chess at the Café de la Régence in Paris, Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift discussed literature at Button’s Coffeehouse in London, while Casanova went cruising for chicks at Caffè Florian in Venice.

Drinks also continued to move away from their sludgy potboiled provenance (though there was still plenty of that around).

Milk, cream, chocolate, or even booze might be added (there is also one account of coffee being mixed with mustard in England, though most of the country spent half of the eighteenth century drunk, so who knows), and the basic idea of immersion brewing -- pouring hot water over coffee grounds and leaving it to steep, as opposed to boiling the entire concoction together -- gained traction.

In the nineteenth century, more sophisticated brewing devices started to appear in Europe, like the percolator, the siphon brewer, and the drip brewer.

I Want to Drink in America

Across the pond, it was a different scene. America got its first coffee house in the late seventeenth century, but, as good British colonists, folks here were more into drinking tea (and, okay, booze).

That is until they decided to stop being such good British colonists and threw all that tea into Boston Harbor (you may have heard about it), and coffee suddenly didn’t look so bad after all. The growing Brazilian coffee industry meant Americans didn’t need those stinking British, anyway -- they could get their own coffee, thank you very much. The Civil War also helped solidify the nation’s preference for the drink. Well, parts of the nation. Union soldiers got a ration of beans -- usually green -- which they could crudely roast, grind, and boil for themselves on the battlefield.

The poorer Confederate soldiers weren’t so lucky (though, apparently, sometimes they were able to trade some for tobacco with their enemies).

The Yankees may have lagged behind countries like France and Germany when it came to brewing techniques, but they were no slouches when it came to roasting. As technology improved and more commercial roasting operations took off, many Americans stopped buying green beans and charring them at home in favor of pre-roasted coffee from the grocery store. By the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, this had become a serious industry, with names like Folgers, Chase & Sanborn, Arbuckle, Hills Bros., and Maxwell House already appearing on store shelves.

The Century Turns

By this time, Americans had started using pumping percolators, which didn’t make amazing coffee, but were certainly a step-up from the previous method of just boiling coffee grounds in water.

Of course, back in continental Europe, the Italians had kicked off the century by inventing the espresso machine. The United States answered back by inventing instant coffee. Nice going, America. (Okay, in fairness, quite a few different people in different countries invented early forms of instant, but it was first made commercially successful by an American, then further popularized amongst U.S. troops in World War I).

Fast-forward to the Great Depression. On the downside, the world was mired with horrible economic woes; on the upside, coffee in America was sucking way less. Prohibition had already helped further the popularity of both coffee and the coffee house (I mean, what else were you going to drink?).

Better-quality beans were flowing in from Latin America, which the increasingly dominant brand-name roasters were putting into premium labels and blends -- though plenty of local grocery stores still sold freshly roasted beans. Vacuum packaging had caught on, allowing beans to be shipped farther and stay fresher. And the coffee market crashed alongside the financial markets, which resulted in low, low prices. Meanwhile, some consumers were finally starting to catch on to superior drip and siphon brewing methods.

But something else was brewing in Europe (or, rather, not brewing) -- a little Swiss company you might have heard of called Nestlé was inventing a “better” way of making instant coffee. It dubbed the new product Nescafé, which hit the U.S. market in the late 1930s (where it was later renamed Nescafé Taster’s Choice). Oh yeah, and some pretty bad shit was brewing in Germany at the time, too.

When World War II broke out, U.S. forces marched off to war with this newfangled instant coffee in their rations. Things would get worse before they got better.

Excerpted from Coffee Nerd: How to Have Your Coffee and Drink It Too Copyright © 2015 Ruth Brown and published by F+W Media, Inc. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.



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